The term “Hong Kong cinema” refers both to an industry and to a phenomenon. In its most concrete sense it denotes the cinematic productions based in the former colony and now Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. But in a larger sense it also refers to a stylistic and cultural movement, and the influence of that movement regionally and globally. As a cultural influence Hong Kong cinema has experienced several different stages.
Hong Kong first became internationally known for its kung fu movies, which displaced the sword-fighting wuxia genre once widely popular in Chinese communities of the 1970s (Teo 1997, 103). In the previous decades the Hong Kong industry had been dominated by large Mandarin-language studios such as Shaw Brothers and Motion Pictures and General Investment Film Company (a.k.a. Cathay). These companies moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai after the postwar communist victory and produced films reflecting the commercial modernization associated with the 1960s.
The 1970s, however, saw the decline of the major Mandarin studios. Former Shaw Brothers executive Raymond Chow started Golden Harvest, the studio that signed Bruce Lee. Lee developed his own Cantonese version of martial arts films, with himself as kung fu star, in The Big Boss (1971), Fist of Fury (1972), and Way of the Dragon (1973), gradually superseding the popularity of the Mandarin-speaking films produced by the Shanghai directors in Hong Kong.
The brutal fighting scenes and anti-racist and anti-western nationalist themes highlighted in Lee’s movies not only appealed to Chinese communities but, paradoxically, won great popularity in western markets, particularly the US, and led to the co-production of Enter the Dragon (1973) by Hollywood-based producers and Lee’s Hong Kong production team. Lee became an icon as an Oriental hero, and the Hong Kong action choreography was not only well received by international audiences but came to influence the staging of fight scenes in Hollywood films as well. Lee’s premature death led to a temporary decline of western interest in martial arts films, but during the late 1970s, Cantonese cinema continued to have local appeal with the kung fu comedy films of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, and the comedies of Michael Hui, which satirized the growing urbanized Hong Kong society. The martial arts movies of Chan and Hung further popularized a kung fu “acrobatic” style that translated into big box office in North America and led to a Hong Kong-American international “action style,” represented by such films as Kiss of the Dragon with Jet Li (2001) and Rush Hour 3 (2007) with Jackie Chan.
What should be emphasized is that the development of Hong Kong cinema is closely tied to the socio-economic and political changes of Hong Kong. Thus, though Hong Kong kung fu movies exercised global appeal, after the mid-1970s they no longer satisfied the first generation of local-born Chinese in Hong Kong, who were experiencing major socioeconomic and political changes. Alongside the popular kung fu movies in the 1970s to mid-1980s were movies of the New Wave, including Private Eyes (1976) by Michael Hui, which exposed the hardships of the Hong Kong lower classes, Jumping Ash (1976) by Leong Po-Chih and Josephine Siao, which explored drug trafficking and police corruption, and Boat People (1984) by Ann Hui, which depicted the tragedies of Vietnamese boat people seeking refuge in Hong Kong waters.
A major factor in the transitional period after 1984 was the Joint Sino-British Declaration returning the sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) by 1997. Fearful of impending communist control, a large number of Hong Kong movies portrayed Chinese mainlanders stereotypically, as gangsters disrupting the law and order of Hong Kong (e.g., Long Arm of the Law ), as people with insurmountable social and political differences (e.g., Homecoming ; Yau 1994, 193 –195), amplifying the sense of incompatibility between the pluralistic colony and the “uncivilized” motherland (e.g., Her Fatal Ways ). These “realistic” movies, together with many local commercial movie fads about triad societies (e.g., A Better Tomorrow  by John Woo), vulgar films featuring sex and gambling (e.g., films directed by Wong Jing) and the famous postmodern “meaninglessness” comedies of Stephen Chow (Wulitou ) propelled Hong Kong cinema to its apex. Paralleling the global dominance of Hollywood, Hong Kong cinema had become another regional source of influence in Asia, especially Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and South Korea.
After 1997, Hong Kong cinema suffered a severe blow, ironically not due to political pressure but to the economic downturn resulting from the Asian economic crisis of 1997–1998. This was followed by the terror of the SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) epidemic in 2002 –2003. Many of the famous Hong Kong directors and superstars took attractive offers from Hollywood to continue their movie careers abroad (Dannen & Long 1997). Among those are John Woo, who directed Mission Impossible II (2000); Tsui Hark, who directed Knock Off (1998); Ringo Lam, who directed In Hell (2003); flight choreographer Dannie Yen, who participated in Stormbreaker (2006); and artist Chow Yun-Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). While the lure of Hollywood might be regarded as a brain-drain problem for Hong Kong cinema, many Hollywood films, in particular action movies, now carry the stylistic mark of Hong Kong cinema.
In the face of this economic downturn some Hong Kong filmmakers risked producing films with high budgets. The most prominent of these was Infernal Affairs (2002), the script and high concept of which were acquired by Hollywood and transformed into the American version, The Departed (2006), winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2006. Other local filmmakers sought to partner with Chinese national and private film companies (e.g., Hero ) or with international financiers to produce high-budget quality films with a Chinese edge. For example, Kung Fu Hustle (2004) was jointly produced with Columbia Pictures Film and Stephen Chow.
Nevertheless, the pull of an expanding China market poses a dilemma for Hong Kong cinema: Can films be produced for the Chinese market – with its regulations regarding sex, violence, and politics – and still perpetuate a distinct Hong Kong genre and culture?
- Bordwell, D. (2000). Planet Hong Kong: Popular cinema and the art of entertainment. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Dannen, F., & Long, B. (1997). Hong Kong Babylon: An insider’s guide to the Hollywood of the east. London: Faber and Faber.
- Teo, S. (1997). Hong Kong cinema: The extra dimensions. London: British Film Institute.
- Yau, E. (1994). Mainland China in Hong Kong cinema. In N. Brown, P. Pickowicz, V. Sobchack, & E. Yau (eds.), New Chinese cinemas. New York: Cambridge University Press, pp. 180 –201.